Meet Melody Ding

November 2018

Ever thought retiring would be better for your health? Work by UniSuper member and epidemiologist and population behavioural scientist from the University of Sydney Dr Melody Ding suggests it would be.

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Working as an epidemiologist and population behavioural scientist isn’t a typical career—what does this involve and how did you find yourself working in this area?

My work involves identifying population trends for chronic disease and understanding the intricate relationships between risk factors and health as well as exploring the behavioural and social mechanisms for unhealthy lifestyles and developing strategies for improving public health and wellbeing. Our work is particularly relevant in forming public policies. I see what we do as complementary to doctors. The difference being, we focus more on prevention and less on treatment; and we work with whole populations rather than the individual.

I fell into this field by chance after reading the description for the Master of Public Health degree in the United States. And I fell in love with this discipline during my first lecture and I haven’t looked back! I love the big picture and informative nature of the field, but what drives me most is knowing that what I do can make a difference in the health and wellbeing of many people around the world.

Your research on retirement and lifestyle was inspired by your own personal experience and has obviously given you some personal insight into the field. What was your biggest learning from this and the research?

I learned from researching the retirement transition at the population level that people’s lifestyles became healthier after retirement. They became more physically active, sat less, slept more and some quit smoking. This was certainly encouraging and this research made news headlines around the world. The message I like to communicate from this research, is that retirement can be a great thing, a window of opportunity for a healthy change, and an enjoyable new chapter in life.

Watching my mother manage her anxiety in the year leading up to her retirement made me understand how many people might feel when faced with this important and inevitable change in life.

Feeling like you’re part of a community can be important for one’s mental health. Britain just appointed a Minister for Loneliness to tackle the isolation felt by more than one in ten people in the UK. How do you think we can promote community in our society?

Humans are social creatures. Feeling connection and trust with one another is critical to our wellbeing. In the last few decades, many societies have seen a decline in human interactions. We move from the city to live in bigger houses, drive around in car-dependent cities, and glue our eyes to our phone instead of looking each other in the eyes. Promoting a sense of community should start with rethinking the way we live, travel and communicate at different levels. At the societal level, we need to build walkable and liveable neighbourhoods which facilitate a healthy, active and socially connected lifestyle. At the community level, we should think about the simple contribution we can make, such as volunteering and organising or attending a community event. At the individual level, we should be mindful about our addictions to cars, TV, and smartphones and think about how we can bring human interaction back into our life.

It’s important to have a social role after retirement. Whether it’s being a grandparent, neighbour, student, volunteer or community organiser, having a role to fulfil provides us with a sense of purpose, identity and opportunities to socialise with people around us, all of which are important for our physical, mental and emotional wellbeing.

And finally, what does your ideal retirement look like?

Although my retirement is a long time off, I often daydream about what it’ll be like. I think I’ll be very happy to have more free time to fit in hobbies. I’ll continue to enjoy yoga, dance, swimming and cycling, while making the time for new adventures, such as learning a foreign language and taking music and art lessons. I’ll devote time to travelling, writing and teaching yoga (I’m a certified yoga instructor, but have little time to teach). Finally, I want to continue to be active in communities through scientific communication, public speaking, and volunteering to promote public health and to empower girls and women to pursue a successful scientific career.

Read more about Melody’s research about retirement and healthier lifestyles.